RECIPE: Lezione d’italiano #2—Una Cena Buonissima da non Rompere Il Bilancio (A very good dinner that won’t break the bank)

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Great food, even delicious, nourishing, and soul-feeding food, food graced with beautiful names like bucatini al cacio e pepe,
tagliatelle alla carbonara, or pappardelle cremose ai funghi, that you might pay $30 a plate for in Manhattan, can be made for a tiny fraction of that at home. Infatti (in fact), some of the best and most famous Italian dishes are shockingly cheap to make from scratch. This is because Italians have historically cooked with what’s easily available at hand, with common, simple, bountiful ingredients.

Take ragù, for instance. No, I am not referring to Ragù™, the salt and sugar-based, “flavored with meat” stronzato (I’ll let you look that one up yourself) American invention that goes by that name. I acknowledge that you can feed a family of four with it for seven dollars, but would you believe me if I claimed you could feed that same family of four, doing dinner just as the Romans do, for not all that much more? It’s true, and I’m about to show you how.

If you’ve been to my house more than once, there’s a good chance I’ve served you spaghetti (or rigatoni or penne) bolognese. For clarification, ragù is a broad, general term for any hearty meat sauce that’s made with wine and tomatoes or tomato paste. Bolognese, meaning ‘from Bologna’ is the regional take on ragù. (In Italian ‘bolognese,’ is not capitalized, which is the rule for any nationality, language, or municipal identifier.)

There are likely hundreds of different ways to make this sauce. You might try Clemenza’s take on ragù from “The Godfather,” in which he stands over the stove explaining his secrets to Michael, in case he’s ever in a pinch and needs to cook for twenty guys. (“You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it, ya make sure it doesn’t stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh…? And a little bit o’ wine. An’ a little bit o’ sugar, and that’s my trick.”)

Maybe there’s your nonna (grandmother)’s own particular recipe, which was a slight modification on her own mother’s recipe, which she cooked while swatting at you with her spatula and yelling, “State zitti!” (Be quiet!). (I’ve had a lot of Italian students. I know how these nonne are.) Some recipes call for white wine, others red. Some have you adding milk before the wine, others suggest the reverse order. Some call for tomato paste in lieu of tomatoes, some for sausage (see above), some for veal, and some only for beef. There are also excellent vegetarian versions.

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The recipe I use is from Marcella Hazan, who put this and hundreds of other dishes on the map with her book, “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” published originally in 1992, with a 30th anniversary edition that came out last year. My own copy, as you can see from the photo below, is well-loved.

My own well-loved copy of Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.” Photo by Sheela Clary.

I’m a big Hazan fan, but if you do invest in a copy based on my recommendation, just know that she sometimes seems to work under the assumption that her dear reader lives life as she did, free to spend a morning wandering the vicoli (alleyways) of Venice in search of the city’s freshest zucchini.

Along those same lines, don’t be put off by the recipe for Ragu Bolognese, which, from chopping to serving, takes just under four hours. Three of those hours are cooking time, and since you will have already opened that bottle of wine, rilassati, calmati, non preoccuparti. (Relax, calm yourself, don’t worry.) It’s 2 p.m. on a cloudy Sunday afternoon in January? Perfect time to put on an apron and get out your biggest pot. By 6 p.m., you will have enough food to feed the family for several days for less than it takes to go to McDonalds once. Prego. You’re welcome. (Mamma mia, I just accidently invoked the name of the other salt and sugar-based monstrosity. Mi dispiace. I’m sorry.)

Here’s how to make la mia salsa bolognese (my Bolognese sauce). For all you very precise cooks out there, mi dispiace again. I’m not precise.

  1. Turn on the stove to medium/high or high, depending on how fancy your stove is, and heat about three tablespoons of olive oil and two or three tablespoons of butter.
  2. Chop up a medium-sized cipolla (onion) and put it in the pot. (It does not have to be perfect chopping, as everything will be ground up later.)

    Your chopping skills do not have to be perfect, because it will all be ground up later. Photo by Sheela Clary.

  3. In similarly imprecise fashion, cut four large carote (carrots) and four large stalks of sedano (celery) into a few big chunks each and put them in in a Cuisinart to make them very fine.
  4. Once the onion is transculent and soft, after about five minutes, add the carrots and celery.
  5. Let the other veggies soften up, then add two pounds of manzo (beef) which you will need to break up.
  6. Grate in a large pinch (like ½ teaspoon) of noce moscata (nutmeg) if you have it, for flavor. Also add a tablespoon or so of salt.

    If you have it, add in a large pinch of nutmeg for flavor. Photo by Sheela Clary.

  7. Let the meat brown up, but you don’t have to wait for all the red to be gone before you…
  8. Add a cup or so of prosecco or vino bianco (white wine), stir and let most of it evaporate away, for circa dieci minuti (about 10 minutes).
  9. Add about a cup of latte (milk), preferably whole, or lowfat milk combined with half and half (like I do), and let that bubble mostly away (about 10 minutes).
  10. Add two 28 oz cans of pomodori (tomatoes) after the two liquids have boiled down. Stir in the tomatoes, reduce the heat to its lowest setting, and let it simmer. (I use Pomi tomatoes, on sale at Big Y in Great Barrington, because they are what I used when I lived in Italy.)
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Once the liquids have boiled down, two 28 oz cans of tomatoes go in the pot. Photo by Sheela Clary.

When three hours are up, or most of the liquid has evaporated and the level of the sauce has gone down about an inch on the side of the pot, mescoli (stir) in a few more tablespoons of burro (butter, not donkey). If you are trying to get your kids to eat their verdure (vegetables) without knowing it, use an immersion miscelatore (blender) to make the sauce liscia (smooth). This is of course not necessary, and if I am feeling pigra (lazy) or just want the kids to eat their damn vegetables without trucchi (tricks), I will skip it. Finally, grate in about a cup of formaggio alla parmigiana (Parmesan cheese). This last ingredient will also be the most expensive. I sometimes leave it out entirely, and, frankly, also strangely, don’t really miss it.

The end result, I have to admit, is not bella. Infatti, you might mistake it for dog vomit. Years ago, the teenaged son of my college friend took one look into my ragù Bolognese as I was extracting the immersion blender and exclaimed, “I can’t eat that crap!” After dinner he abjectly apologized. “I’m sorry. I was wrong. It was actually delicious. Can you give my mom the recipe?”

Prezzi degli ingredienti per una doppia porzione di ragu Bolognese, adattato dalla ricetta di Marcella Hazan (Prices for the ingredients for a double portion of Bolognese, adapted from the recipe of Marcella Hazan):

  • Two pounds ground beef: about $10.00
  • One onion: $1.50
  • Four carrots: 80¢
  • Four stalks celery: $1.20
  • One cup prosecco or white wine: about $3.00
  • One cup milk: 30¢
  • Two 28 oz good San Marzano tomatoes: $6.00 on sale at Big Y
  • Grating of nutmeg: 25¢
  • Cup of real parmesan cheese (or grana Padano, which is very similar but cheaper): $7.00
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Total cost of sauce: $30.05

With the addition of a box and a half of spaghetti ($3.50), I can feed 12 very hungry people with this amount of Bolognese. So, my total comes out to $3.50 plus $30.05, for a total of $33.55. Divide $33.55 three meals, and you get $11.18 per meal for four people. What if you leave out the parmesan? Just $8.85. Meraviglioso, no? (Amazing, isn’t it?) Take that, Ragu™.

Collected by Cookingtom

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